While Mr. Gross tells the scribblers about what may happen to interest rates in the near future, the floor below is swarming with people hauling massive containers of coins from one slot machine to the next. They watch with petrified desolation as their money disappears in a room without day or night.
Las Vegas is way ahead of Wall Street. It's been doing 24 hour trading for years.
In fact, there is an odd linguistic convergence. As the gambling industry was morphing itself from "gambling," to "gaming" and, finally, to "entertainment," the language of investing was being infused with gambling terms. Portfolio managers make sector bets, hedge their bets, work spreads, and feel sorry for investors who are making "sucker bets." Meanwhile, the holding period for common stocks is diminishing. While it's still longer than the flip of a card or a turn at the Craps table, the whole idea of long-term capital gains is unfathomable to thousands of new investors.
Then Mr. Gross made an odd confession: In the four-month period between college graduation and entering the Navy, he went to Las Vegas to make his living as a professional Blackjack player.
"I worked very hard at it. I was very disciplined. I played seven days a week." he said.
When he was packing to leave Las Vegas, he counted all the time he had spent and calculated that he had made about $5 an hour. Not bad for a summer job and a whole lot better than most of the people who arrive with the same intention. But it wasn't enough to show a promising future.
So he focused on bonds, another area where a head for figures is handy, and became a prime mover in the growth of PIMCO. It was a good decision.
On November 1st, Allianz AG Holding agreed to buy 70 percent of PIMCO for $3.3 billion.
Unfortunately, most gamblers don't learn as quickly as Bill Gross. Whether it was at downtown casinos like the Golden Nugget and Four Queens or the newer and (even) glitzier casinos on the Strip like Bellagio and Venice, I was amazed to find that the slot machines were generally busier than the roulette, craps, or blackjack tables. According to professional gambler John Patrick, slot machines have the highest "vig" of all games, about 17 percent, meaning that the house keeps 17 percent of the money played and returns 83 percent.
In his book on Blackjack (So You Wanna Be a Gambler, Lyle Stuart, PB, $15.95), Mr. Patrick points out that the house take in Roulette is about one-third of the take in slot machines. Blackjack, Baccarat, and Craps tables are even lower, reaching about 2 percent.
And there's the rub.
In two evenings of Blackjack, I learned that gamblers are remarkably like most investors:
· They don't know the rules of the game very well;
· They don't know the odds for different plays;
· And they don't know when to cut their losses and leave the table.
As Lawrence Revere wrote in Playing Blackjack as a Business (Lyle Stuart, PB, $16.95), "…casinos… know that in the final analysis, too few players have studied hard enough, or have followed the rules of play well enough to constitute a real threat."
How do you become a threat to the casinos?
It isn't easy.
For starters, you'd read both books cover to cover. You'll learn how much of a bankroll you need, how to manage it, how to set limits on winning and losing, and how to play your hands. Like virtually all books on blackjack, both of these books base strategy on Julian Braun's study of 9 billion possible dealer/player hand combinations.
After that, you'd buy a Blackjack calculator--- a little device that deals and keeps score while you make decisions to surrender, double down, hit, or stand against the dealer's visible card. I bought mine for $22. Only repeated play will give you the familiarity necessary to make quick, probability-based decisions.
Then again, you might decide, as I did after two evenings of attempting to become a threat to casinos, that Bill Gross made the right decision.
In the investment game, the odds are better.
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